(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials, of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, As Well Publick as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665 (1722)
By Daniel Defoe
Book #62 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Although not actually written until sixty years later (but more on that in a bit), Daniel Defoe's 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year is pretty much what it sounds like -- a purportedly true account of London's Great Plague of 1665, the last outbreak of the bubonic plague the city would ever see, supposedly written by an average middle-classer who decided to wait things out instead of fleeing to the countryside like so many others. As such, then, the book doesn't really have a three-act plot per se, but is more a rambling collection of observations, anecdotes, and actual hard data -- from an examination of the religious fervor that overtook the city during the worst months, to a detailed look at how home quarantines actually worked, to second-hand accounts of the equal amount of trouble awaiting poor peasants who tried living illegally in the rural wilds of England that year, to horror stories of people literally bursting into goo in the middle of public streets, or of cemetery workers who would literally die while on their way to mass graves with a cart full of corpses, leaving the city full of wandering teams of horses dragging dead bodies randomly to and fro. Although almost 300 years old by now, be warned that this is still not for the faint of heart!
The argument for it being a classic:
The case for this being a classic is a pretty simple one -- it is arguably the very first "historical novel" in human history, and in fact it was the centuries of passionate debate about whether this should be considered fact or fiction that even led to the term in the first place, and to this genre eventually becoming as popular as it now is. (For example, although not proven, it's widely believed that our narrator "H.F." is based on Defoe's relative Henry Foe, who actually was a young adult craftsman in London during the '65 plague, and who may or may not have left a detailed journal where Defoe culled many of these stories; and for another example, Defoe even went to the trouble of including slang terms and intentional misspellings from the 1660s that had fallen out of favor by the 1720s.) On top of this, though, say its fans, the book's simply one freaky nightmare of a read, a surprisingly plain-spoken and readable book (befitting the Enlightenment times when it was actually written) that has had an enormous impact on not only historical novels but the horror genre and post-apocalyptic fiction, and that has directly influenced everyone from Albert Camus to Cormac McCarthy to even Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (That movie's famous line "Bring out yer dead!" was lifted directly from this book.)
The argument against:
There seems to be two main arguments against The Plague Year being a classic, although admittedly both of them weak ones: first, that as a mere prototype of a genre that didn't acquire its main tropes until a century later, the book's digressive nature and outdated language is hard to read and follow; and second, that although this book may be good enough on its own, it's Defoe's much more famous and important Robinson Crusoe that should actually be considered the indisputable classic, in that that's the book widely considered to be the very first three-act novel in the history of the English language.
As I've said in this essay series before, I think to truly enjoy books that are this old, it's important to understand the context in which they were written, and to know what kinds of things were influencing both the author himself and the original audience he was writing for; and so in the case of The Plague Year, understanding this context makes the book much more fascinating than simply its writing quality may make it seem, and is crucial for understanding why I found this such a surprisingly fantastic read. Because, you see, Defoe was not only one of the first novelists in British history (a format he came to know and love during his travels in southern Europe as a businessman in the late 1600s), but he chose to use this format specifically to comment on the hottest, trendiest issues of the day, making him essentially the Michael Crichton of the Enlightenment; and it just so happens that just a year before this was written, the French city of Marseilles went through a major new outbreak of the bubonic plague, which inspired the British public and its newfound "journalism" industry to obsessively look back at their own plague of 56 years previous, and to examine all the ways that their society had profoundly changed since then.
Now combine this with the Great London Fire just one year after this 1665 plague, a one-two knockout to the city that left it largely empty of people and burned to the ground, and was the very thing that transformed it in those years into the post-Medieval modern infrastructure we now know; when you take all these things into consideration, then, The Plague Year suddenly becomes not just a horror story and important precedent in the development of historical fiction, but indeed serves as no less than a grand epic look at the transformation of Britain in this 60-year period, from the last vestiges of the Middle Ages to the "Age of Science" of Defoe's own times. I mean, certainly a lot more of this book suddenly starts making a lot more sense when you assume that this was Defoe's actual goal; he goes on and on in it, for example, about the shamefully superstitious way that 1600s Londoners actually reacted to this plague (a common criticism among Enlightenment citizens about the generation before them), and also takes the trouble to point out all the faulty ways that people medically tried to deal with this plague, outdated hokum that had been disproven by the "modern" doctors of Defoe's own time, and one of the many sneakily brilliant things that Defoe gets away with by writing this in reality half a century after the events that it describes.
I mean, don't get me wrong, the book just by itself is pretty great on its own; it's unusually easy to read compared to books written in the same time period, and really does have a kind of slasher-flick mentality that makes it still so engaging even three centuries later. But I have to admit, what makes it truly delightful is to imagine yourself as an average Enlightenment intellectual in the early 1700s yourself, to picture the ways that science and reason and philosophy were utterly transforming society at the time, literally wresting power away from the mysticism, fear and superstition that had mostly driven British life up to that point (because let's never forget, it actually took several additional centuries for the principles of the Renaissance to truly catch on in Britain, after it first became popular in southern Europe in the late 1400s); and then to imagine reading The Plague Year within such a context, the point not really to talk about plagues at all but rather to examine all the ways that British society had changed in the 60 years since, and to thank God that modern biological science was rapidly bringing an end to such plagues in the first place. When read in this spirit, it makes The Plague Year one of the most surprisingly great books in the entirety of this essay series so far, and it comes strongly recommended to those who can maintain this attitude themselves.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Alice Through the Lookingglass, by Lewis Carroll
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)